The link at the top is the direct free pdf download of my Farming the Poems booklet. It is a short and eclectic collection of poems about my farming life of five years, but many years ago now.
As ever, such a personal memoir/reflection is very much a product of the process of recall – the poems a capture from that act of memory, hoping it can be of some interest worth sharing. Perhaps what follows is more for those who have farmed…
My farming life made a huge contribution to who I am today, good and/or bad.
I was an agricultural labourer for five years: 3 years from 1973 full-time on a three thousand acre farm in Suffolk – that’s large in England – with two separate sites, so two foremen and a dedicated group of farm workers at each; and then 2 years part-/full-time on a 200 acre farm on top of the Chilterns, run by the foreman and me [the silver-spooned owner ‘helping’ occasionally, one time setting the grain dryer alight].
On the first I learnt nearly everything, though didn’t work much with livestock, apart from early morning feeding the beef herd using a tractor to pull a feed dispenser of the sweetest, rotted maize silage. I became an all-round tractor driver, focusing on croming [cultivating], occasional rolling, turning hay, with a specialty for using a tractor and front loader to pick up and stack straw bales. I was also a regular forklift truck driver, fetching and moving anything and everything. Another specialty was summer irrigation: from laying individual long pipes by hand all day across grazing fields separated by electrified wire, to using a dolphin self-propelling irrigating machine with one huge revolving jet, to another new then huge helicopter-like machine with great long revolving arms that you drove onto a field. All of these were hooked up to outlets situated around the farm and connected to two main farm reservoirs where we would go in the morning to start up the pumping diesel engines for that ran on timers.
I riddled potatoes in a winter barn in what seemed like forever; hoed and then once winter-harvested a field of sugar beet, too solidly iced for using a machine, so pulling each from the ground with a hand-held hook and then slicing off the top with that same implement’s blade – both times with a camaraderie of a staggered line of farm-funny men, the latter freezing; mucked out; repaired pot-holed farm lanes stripped to the waist in January so hot from breaking and then spreading brick and stone; laid concrete drives; felled trees and made fence posts; fencing from barbed wire to wood; emptied cess pits [not that often, thankfully], and so much more.
At the age of 17 I had my own cottage and didn’t make it to college for all my seminars, earning the worst attendance record for some years, apparently. That farming from the age of 19 taught me a work ethic which I carried with me and used ever since, including my studies.
And the skills I learned on that first farm got me my job on the second. Studying for a teaching degree and English at Oxford, I advertised my services in The Farmer’s Weekly to undertake, within travelling distance, weekend work as well as paid holiday work for annual free accommodation. I had one offer from a farm in Didcot but immediately got the job I went for first in Ibstone which came with a three-bedroomed house.
At weekends I essentially fed and mucked out the pigs. In my holidays times I worked at everything on that small farm: pigs again; cultivating on the steep hills in an old Massy Ferguson; dipping sheep, castrating sheep [me catching really], helping when they were sheared with lanolin rolls of wool, and moving them to various fields; in summer, mainly transporting the harvested grain back to the farm either for drying or, in one hot season, going straight into the bins [I never drove the combine]; stacking and carting straw; stubble burning, and as with such a small farm, anything else I was tasked to do, like cutting the owner’s hedges.
For personal reasons I had to give up farming in 1978 and moved into Oxford just off the Iffley Road for two more years of studying.